Neurofeedback can help find 'the zone' of peak performance

Have you ever had the experience of shooting baskets, suddenly getting "hot" and having every one go in for a certain stretch of time? Often as soon as we realize we are in "the zone," we quickly lose the unconscious rhythm that was propelling us to peak performance. Top athletes seem to have a natural ability to stay in this state for extended periods of time, as described in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience."

In interviews, Michael Jordan has described a sense of time slowing down with everyone else moving in slow motion. Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams used to say the baseball would look as big as a basketball with the seams visible as it came across the plate. Ironically, the best performances often feel effortless rather than physically demanding.

Sports psychologists use a variety of mind-body techniques such as visualization to help athletes get into and stay in this state. Decathlete Dan O'Brien hired such a mental coach to help him win the gold medal in the last Summer Olympics after choking in the pole vault four years before. Magic Johnson has said he would often visualize an entire basketball game before stepping onto the court.

One of the most high-tech methods for learning to engage the flow experience is EEG neurofeedback. The NeuroNavigators in Cary have developed an innovative portable system which they bring once a semester to my PE-14: Stress Management and Performance Enhancement class in the Card Gym wrestling room. Using a software program that runs on a laptop computer, they are able to monitor the brainwave profiles of my students in real-time.

The system is calibrated to give feedback in the form of auditory tones through headphones that indicate whether the subject is achieving the desired brainwave pattern. If the alpha state that is often associated with being in the zone is the target, the machine can be set to produce the strongest tones when brain frequencies are in the eight to 12 hertz range. During my first such experience I quickly discovered that what worked best for me was to imagine I was shooting free throws with a rhythmic motion and making every one.

The machine settings can be changed to reinforce brain frequencies between four and eight hertz allowing the subject to stay in a theta state, which is often associated with vivid imagery. This form of consciousness is usually experienced only briefly while dozing off or upon awakening but can be rich in creative potential and inspiration. Thomas Edison was said to exploit this phenomenon for intuitive insights by taking naps while holding ball bearings in his hands so he would awaken immediately upon passing into theta as the bearings dropped onto his desk.

The NeuroNavigators work most frequently with golfers and executives to enhance their ability to perform and solve problems by entering these states. They tell an amusing story about a golfer who wanted to improve his consistency and have more fun playing at the same time. They worked with him in the theta state to help creatively release some unconscious blocks to achieving his goals and then switched to the alpha state so he could practice the perfect stroke.

On his next trip to the driving range after the training he hit the first shot straight and true off the tee and immediately started to giggle. When the experience was repeated on each of the ensuing shots, he progressed to outright laughter, much to the consternation of the other frustrated golfers at the range. His performance in this state of flow is akin to the mystical sports experiences described by Michael Murphy in the human-potential classic, "Golf in the Kingdom."

Drugs can also be used in an attempt to chemically induce such a state of enhanced consciousness, so it should come as no surprise that neurofeedback has been found to be useful in the treatment of addiction. Psychologist Pat Norris of Topeka's Life Sciences Institute of Mind-Body Health has done research with inmates in Kansas prisons demonstrating that their craving for drugs can be significantly reduced through alpha/theta training. The results have been so impressive that the state has now mandated that all prison drug rehabilitation programs must include neurofeedback training.

In the final analysis, neurofeedback is simply a method to teach self-regulation, and there are many other possible paths to transcendent experience including meditation and prayer. In "The Heart of Matter," mystical priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes the smooth flow of sensory phenomena in religious ecstasy in terms similar to an athlete's description of being in the zone, "these countless modifications, instinct with majesty, sweetness and irresistible appeal, followed one another in succession, were transformed, melted into one another in a harmony that was utterly satisfying to me."

Dr. Larry Burk is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology.


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